Technology is a relatively new word to the lexicon. The term was first used in print in 1831 by Jacob Bigelow, a New England botanist and doctor who published a series of his lectures as a textbook. Evidence of technology use by humans, however, extends far into pre-history. Wherever archaeologists find evidence of ancient humans, they usually find evidence of the technology used by those humans, and some ancient human cultures are known to scholars primarily by the evidence of their technology. Despite this, the role of technology in human history is still open to interpretation.
Technology and Homo sapiens
Because evidence of tools accompanies evidence of humans, it is difficult to decide if humans preceded tools or if tools were created by pre-human primates. In his book The Artificial Ape, archaeologist Timothy Taylor (2010) claims the question cannot be answered because the human species and the technology we have created cannot be separated. He concludes, “key aspects of our biology would be impossibly dysfunctional” (Taylor 2010, 27) without the advantages of technology, and it is only though our technology that our species with its weak muscles, thin skin, and small teeth (all deficits that make human survival dubious in any ecosystem) could have adapted to survive in any environment. Humans’ first technology involved simple manipulation of materials that were found (for example making stone hand tools), and it proceeded to very complex manipulations of the environment (for example smelting ores to extract metal). Modern humans create their own materials and many technologies familiar to 21st century populations have little connection to the natural world compared to the technologies developed by ancient humans. Taylor (2010) approached a tautology when he suggested that “the intelligence that makes us inventive was enabled by inventions: the baby sling, the stone blade, and the cooking hearth” (194), but he continued “these are not the same as inanimate, natural things. They are artificial and form the nonbiological aspect of the artificial ape” (194). Without such body-extending technologies, Taylor argued, the artificial ape would not survive to form the complex social structures that define humans. The baby sling adds extra arms so that a mother can hold her child and still work. The stone blade allows the human hand to break what otherwise would be unbreakable (rocks, hard-packed clay, nuts, or an enemy’s skull). Cooking extends digestion outside our bodies. Taylor concluded that human biology and technology cannot be understood in isolation.
Kevin Kelly, an influential writer and thinker about technology, appeared to concur with Taylor when he concluded humanity is characterized by the technium, which includes both humans’ biological character and the technology they create into a single complex that “extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types” (Kelly 2010, 11-12). The idea that humans and their technology are part of the natural progression that can be traced back through the history of the universe is common in modern thought. In the middle of the 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who as a French Jesuit priest and scholar, suggested in The Phenomenon of Man (1959), the history of the universe can be understood as a progression from geogenesis (the origins of the inorganic) to biogenesis (origins of the organic) to psychgenesis (origins of the consciousness) to technogeneis (origins of technology). Both Taylor and Kelly extend this line of thought to conclude that technology has taken on many of the characteristics of life and that our technology appears to be using humans to sustain itself.
Technology and Invention
Even if one rejects the extreme conclusion that technology uses humans in the same way humans use technology, the connections between humans and the developments of technologies are clear. The observed progression from simple to complex technologies becomes expected once humans’ nature as technology-creating social creatures is recognized; humans use technology to create more technology and to create social groups. In a contrary view, David Nye (2006) a historian of technology from Denmark observed that “the central purpose of technologies has not been to provide necessities, such as food and shelter, for humans had achieved these goals very early in their existence” (2). Nye and others find that the adage “necessity is the mother of invention” is just the opposite of what we observe in humans’ use of technology; as humans invent technologies, they redefine what is necessary. Kevin Kelly (2010) appears to concur with this conclusion as well, as his definition of the technium includes the observation that “the generative impulses of our inventions [are] to encourage more tool-making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections” (12). Our biology has adapted to the environment that we created in large part through our own technology and technologies were adopted to meet our biological (including social) needs. Using technology is fundamental to human nature, building social connections is fundamental to human nature. Those aspects of human nature will form the generalizations upon which the 21st century education paradigm is built.
Kelly, Kevin. 2010. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking
Nye, David. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Taylor, Timothy. 2010. The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution. New York:. Palgrave Macmillan.
Tielhard de Chardin, Pierre. 1959. The Phenomenon of Man. Translated by Bernard Wall. New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers.